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For the longest time, my prayer journal has had pride on the page under "spiritual life/growth."
The danger is that though we may recognize that we need to deal with these major sins, we neglect to to do more than simply identify the overall threat they represent--without getting specific to how exactly they are manifested in our lives. Which means not actually dealing with them at all. We admit our failure, but besides praying about it and feeling bad about it, "trying a little harder," we don't actually make any truly concrete changes.
So for the longest time I have been praying about pride, and yet only hazily had any idea about how I could deal with this problem.
I didn't realize that--for also the longest time--I have had a (parallel) problem with impatience. Stemming from my task-oriented and achiever personality. When something needs to be done, I value efficiency and speed, not because it comes naturally, but because it makes me feel good about myself, it gives me a sense of achievement and reassurance if I get many things done, quickly. That probably tells you all you need to know. I tend to dismiss or get impatient with people whose methods of getting things done are different from mine, who want to explore the details, or double check everything. And when my workflow gets disrupted--or criticized--it becomes something personal, something which reflects directly upon my sense of self-worth. I get impatient, tense, and resent any interruptions or criticisms as personal attacks. And I show it, unfortunately.
When I prioritize the task at hand before the person I'm working with--
When I get impatient and dismiss other opinions and working methods because they are different from mine--
When I respond badly to criticism, even when it's constructive and gently conveyed, because I see it as a personal attack on myself and the perfectionist identity I want to maintain--
When I defend my behaviour by claiming that my way is better, anyway--
--the very pride I was praying about flourished.
After an incident where my behaviour was particularly disappointing, I was challenged to see these situations as specific demonstrations of my pride, and deal with them as such. Humility, in my case, could be simply not prioritizing my agenda or way of doing things, to the extent that I behave unlovingly towards others. Humility could be having a heart of peace--amid criticism, or agitation, or tension; when it seems like the job is taking forever, or someone won't stop talking, or my mistakes are being pointed out ("I-told-you-so" situations are probably some of the most mortifying experiences possible for the human soul.) Humility could be the freedom to accept criticism without being crushed or offended.
Humility could be a restful spirit that isn't fixated on getting things done, but prioritizes people and God's timing/plan. Perhaps the main purpose of this incident is teaching me to control my temper, to deal graciously with differences or difficult people, to be loving--not the actual task at hand.
How different from our task-oriented human ideas of 'living for God', 'serving' Him.
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I could start this post off by asking, what's your prayer life like? and induce plenty of uncomfortable squirms (in myself as well.)
After years of struggling at prayer--trying to pray more, to pray better--I've come to the conclusion that we should first address how and why we pray before we start talking about how long or how often.
Too many times as a young Christian trying to pray better, I ended up making yet another list for myself, ploughing through pragmatically and finishing rather out of breath and complacent for the wrong reason. And then I wondered why it seemed so dry and difficult to pray, why prayer isn't the relief, the "sweet hour of prayer"--goodness, I could barely pray for five minutes, one hour?? This is why we mustn't only focus on the activity of spiritual disciplines without understanding the purposes behind them. We end up dutifully consumed by the externalities, by deeds, convinced that like some magic formula we should be upgrading spiritually if we keep doing it long enough.
In teaching Sunday School and working with children in church, I've learnt about prayer in the process of trying to teach them to pray. As I try to answer the questions my students fire at me, and guide the children as they learn to pray, I find myself thinking more, deeper. Simplifying, going back to the very basics of the basics--what does it mean to pray?
Instead of focusing on the externalities--
making a big deal about whether they close their eyes...
fussing if they don't put their hands together...
saying how to begin and end 'the right way'...
telling them what they should or shouldn't pray for...
...we should help them first see why we want to pray in the first place, rather than how.
I think once they have properly grasped the why and Who behind the concept of prayer--a proper understanding of who God is and what prayer means as such--the how will come naturally, whether that means a due respect for God, or being able to pray openly from their hearts.
It was a good reminder to me to examine: how does the way I pray reflect the person of God?
Is He a divine vending machine?
A 24/7 Aunt Agony?
A holy God?
A loving and merciful One?
If I'd not (fortunately) realized how nitpicky and naggy I was becoming I might very well have given my kids the impression that God was like some eccentric elderly relative you have to visit during Chinese New Year for formality's sake, and be polite to because they might give you an ang pow (red paper packet with money inside) if you were polite and did all the weird things they insisted on--close your eyes, sit still, remember to begin and end with those phrases, put your hands in your lap and don't wriggle...
Sometimes it's downright frightening being a Sunday School teacher. So many small things you do or don't do may have such significant spiritual impact!
I'm afraid the God my prayers reflect would be rather too task-oriented, and not extremely interested in having a relationship with His people.
I'm learning to see prayer, like spending time with a loved one--a loved One--as building a relationship; not just working together, reporting back, or fulfilling a duty. Spiritual growth and maturity, all the things we worry about as young Christians, come naturally from there.
With that realization comes a new appreciation and capacity for the "peace that surpasses all understanding"--a peace that we are promised, when we told to "Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication, let your request be made known to God. And the peace of God, that surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus." (Philippians 4:6-7, emphasis mine) The "sweet hour of prayer" that otherwise seems so hard to comprehend when our mind is full of anxiety and guilt, that we can't reconcile with our task-oriented, mechanical, and joyless understanding of prayer. The restfulness we need comes when we talk to Him--earnestly, simply, intimately, seeking to grow our love for and relationship with Him.
Somewhere along with the plasma, platelets, and hemoglobin, list-making is in my blood. As flipping through the notebook I've been using for the last four years indicates, even my journal entries are spotted with lists, especially if I don't have time to compose my thoughts. I thought that lists might be more direct and straightforward for readers as well--or you could just say I'm typing this in a hurry--so this week's post (and perhaps several others to come) is in the shape of a list.
A list of several small reflections I've had over the years, over the process of several difficult relationships with people I don't like/who don't like me/whose interaction with me is usually characterized by tension and conflict. This goes for people who don't see eye to eye with you on significant issues; on people with very different personalities from yours; or even people whose habits and characteristics annoy you. I think I don't need to spend too much time elaborating. If you've ever been tempted to gossip (read: "rant") you probably can explain this better--with more colourful language too probably.
1. Pray for the person. My mom told me this when I was very small, and it sounded so ridiculously, unrealistically simple that I always remembered it. Years later Ken Sande also reiterated this in his book The Peacemaker, and for good reason. If you're struggling to love someone, start by praying for the person. Almost like clockwork, the Holy Spirit gets to work on your heart and prepares it--you might not be able to start making advances then, but eventually you will; and you'll find yourself motivated increasingly by sincere concern instead of animosity/duty.
2. Pray for yourself, for grace, humility, love. As you probably already know, just the thought of it sometimes truly feels like part of you (the old man, according to the Bible) is dying. And boy, it hurts. We need to be greater than that bitterness, that grudge, that pride, that anger, that self-righteousness and entitlement, and yes, hatred.
3. Start spending more time with them, whether physically or communicating.
4. Focus on the things you can connect on. You need to have non-sensitive/explosive things you can relate over, or every time one of you just opens your mouth the other will flinch.
5. Examine what is the ratio of criticism/negativity to positivity/neutral in your communications. Be honest. This is often quite sobering and makes me realize, I'm not their favourite person either; this is what I come across to them as.
6. Give extra thought to tension, whenever you're tempted to criticize, scold, argue. As with dealing with children, it's important that you don't act in the flush of the moment's anger, or from personal reasons. We have to honestly ask ourself: how much of this is out of sincere love and care for the person's well-being, how much of it is just because it offends my own personal sensibilities and preferences, what I want them to do so that I will feel at peace, I will feel good? Because if humans have any defining characteristics besides two eyes, two ears, two legs, and an affinity for terrible decisions, it's a deceptive heart. If you are more concerned with them stopping a certain particular action than the state of their heart--well, just be aware that is the main message they're already receiving. To qualify: if destructive and harmful habits/actions are the case we might have to take decisive action and not just withdraw piously citing this as a reason.
On the flip side--and I've seen myself lapse into both extremes--are we too hesitant, too afraid of conflict to bring up these issues? Do we repress our concerns, telling ourselves that we're being considerate, we're controlling ourselves, only to end up bitter and resentful over time, or exploding unreasonably one day?
7. Appreciate them for who they are, see their strong points, their individual gifts and strengths. Challenge yourself to, if you can't see this.
8. It won't kill you to be silent whenever you want to say something hurtful, even if you feel convinced then that it's warranted or necessary. Often our emotions in the spur of the moment lead us to say things we regret, or things which are foolish and do more harm than good.
9. Sometimes, if you are in a more advanced stage where both of you are mutually working on the relationship, you could muster the humility and courage to ask them what makes it most challenging for them to open up to you/ warm up to you. Maybe you've never realized it before, or meant to come across like this, but you come across as the kind of person who responds negatively to anything that you don't like/that went wrong--blaming/scolding them instead of being supportive and trying to help. Which causes them to simply avoid telling you about anything problematic (dear parents! parents!!) Maybe you've ignored them or hurt them before, and they hold it against you. Maybe you have certain traits which make it hard for them to trust you or take you sincerely. And the list goes on. This takes courage and humility to bear, as the one listening. It also requires trust that the other person will answer honestly and constructively, without giving in to the temptation to tear you down indiscriminately. But when it works, it's hugely helpful in teaching you to see yourself with their eyes, and grasp some of the obstacles in your relationship.
10. And most importantly--not just when it comes to dealing with difficult people, but with everything else--
--meditate on Christ's love for us, and our unworthiness.
True empowerment and freedom comes when we can accept the life-changing significance and hope that lies in both truths, taken concurrently.
Part of my new year routine is taking time to answer Donald Whitney's 10 Questions for the New Year, as you would probably know if you've been reading this blog for a while.
It is always meaningful reading through last year's answers, and realizing how much you'd forgotten or fulfilled since then. What I found most interesting was that each year, one particular thing seemed to repeat itself, to reappear in several answers like it was the theme of that year.
Last year's emerged as knowing God better. Learning to love His attributes. Learning more about the person of God. Learning to see how His attributes applied to my life in a concrete way. I phrased this idea differently in several answers but in essence that was it.
This time, it was simpler. I need to protect my devotions and prayer time, I found myself writing several times in my answers, using almost the same words each time because somehow they were the right ones.
I was surprised at myself. Protect wasn't a word I'd ever used in this context. But I thought back to how I had lapsed for weeks because oh, it was the holidays; I slept late last night; I'd just take a quick scroll down this feed, or check those pesky unread messages first; or there were so many things waiting to be done, I'd just get a head start on clearing them today and be so productive....!
Protect, I realized, was an apt word.
I need to protect that short pocket of time every day from distractions, from work, from laziness. There were so many reasons and excuses one could pick from, and it got easier everyday. I'll start next week, on Monday, get up early and all that, put my life back into balance again, I would think. Like so many (doomed) diets and exercise plans this thought has seen, it didn't quite work out.
I had to protect the time I spent on prayer and devotions from my own excuses.
This was a humbling realization. It was not so much my schedule and all the responsibilities on me. It was not so much whether I'd slept late last night or not. It was just making small decisions--the same small decisions--every day, faithfully. Put down the phone. Those messages can wait, it's not like reading them now accomplishes anything. You don't need to be immediately updated on what the world has been doing for the past few hours you were asleep. Don't look at your schedule yet. You'll be spending the rest of the day looking at it, after all.
It's like training a child to make their bed in the morning. Growing up we all had to do what my mom called the Five Morning Duties. (always in capitals, in my mind. They were important in a basic, pragmatic way; they existed, simply, the way the Seven Wonders of the World or the Four Great Beauties of China did, regardless of your existence.)
Make your bed. Brush your teeth. Wash your face. Comb your hair. Change your clothes and take out the dirty ones.
Making the bed was the first one, which led to the others, and it took as little as a minute--fold your blanket, pick up your stuff toys if they had fallen onto the ground, and pull the quilt over everything. (or prop the mattresses against the wall, in the early days before we got our bunk bed.) It was a decision you made in those first few seconds after you sat up in bed, it didn't take a lot of effort, but you had to make it every day, and it was being able to make it every day that was the greatest accomplishment of all to your mom.
But small decisions, to be made every day, are easy to fail in.
That's why the word protect kept coming to my mind when I looked back soberly upon the weeks which had slid by this past year, each day a chance I had knowingly passed by.
In 2017, I want to protect the time I give for prayer and devotions every day. Even if I wake up late. Even if my phone is blinking with unread messages and notifications. Even if I'm itching to plunge into the to-do list for the day and slap some nice satisfyingly long tailed ticks in there.
We make choices, every day. Small choices which mean great things in the big picture.
a small voice
Ci thinks some of God's greatest blessings to mankind are
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